The Cook Islands more than live up to the South Pacific dream. No wonder Captain Bligh's men took the mutinous decision to stay.
On April 11 1789, His Majesty's ship Bounty came across a supremely beautiful triangle of white sands and coconut palms lost in the vast blue counterpane of the South Pacific. Its commander, Lt William Bligh, was the first European to set eyes on Wytootackee, as he called it - although, in fact, it is not at all tacky. The journal of his voyage, now available online, gives no indication that he had reached what is today billed, with much justification, as "the world's most beautiful lagoon". Sixteen days later, perhaps understandably, his crew mutinied.
Now known as Aitutaki, this epitome of the South Seas idyll has become a chief reason to visit the Cook Islands. Lying west of Tahiti, this once-British constellation of 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls is sprinkled across an oceanic territory the size of Greenland. Its gateway, Rarotonga, seems ridiculously remote, yet dropping into this balmy world is a surprisingly easy affair thanks to an umbilical, once-a-week flight from Los Angeles with Air New Zealand.
Cook Islanders have strong links with the Land of the Long White Cloud. They use the New Zealand dollar and drive on the left, and share a mutual appreciation of Polynesian culture, rugby and custard squares. The weather is hot, the frangipani in bloom and the mangoes ripe.
Kicking back is what it's all about on Aitutaki, which instils mellowness like commuters get stress. A 45-minute flight north of Rarotonga, its tiny airport is delightfully laid-back, with chickens strutting past the check-in counters and tattooed men as big as fridge-freezers proffering garlands of heavenly scented flowers. The island rises no higher than 400ft and you can drive around it in 15 minutes. There's nothing to see - although you could try to spot one of its three policemen.
Except, of course, for that bewitching lagoon. Its shimmering layers of blue and green deliver complete bucket-list satisfaction - providing the sun's out. A favourite way to savour this moment is from a hammock strung between two palms at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, the only upmarket hotel that looks on to its dreamy waters. Another is to take one of the many cruises that explore its magical motus (islets).
Some vessels are large and loud, so I opt for a snorkelling safari aboard the small and simple Teking, which takes up to 12 passengers. We make three stops to plunge into the warm water to admire dazzlingly dressed fish and purple table corals as big as bandstands. Lunch is served on a desert island, a feast of yellowfin tuna, okra salad and fried plantain laid out in giant clam shells. All goes well until we near One Foot Island, where you can get a souvenir stamp in your passport, and the boat breaks down. There don't appear to be any life-jackets and we've run out of water. There is beer, though, and someone wryly observes that Aitutaki is where they filmed the reality shows Shipwrecked and Survivor.
By comparison, life on Rarotonga feels almost hectic. The hub of the Cook Islands is dominated by a rainforest-cloaked volcanic core rising to 614 metres, with a sleepy coastal road uniting its low-key beaches and reefs. You can drive the full circle in 45 minutes, or there are public buses with signs that simply say "Clockwise" or "Anti-Clockwise".
For a taste of Raro's rugged interior, I join Pa, a bare-chested and dreadlocked local showman for a three-hour hike across the island. It's a hot and muddy workout as we climb up to the toothlike Te Rua Manga peak, and a perfect antidote to atoll-atrophy. Contrary to cliche, the South Pacific lifestyle is not all lazing around in Gauguinesque poses - something that becomes clear when I watch a rugby match at Raemau Park. The islanders play both league and union - in this case it's the first, a lively spat between the Arorangi Bears and the Avatiu Eels thrashed out in 33C heat, with post-protectors kindly sponsored by DJ Stockfeed.
The crowds are relaxed and friendly, and this is one of many ways you can meet the locals. Time your visit to coincide with the Punanga Nui Saturday market in the capital, Avarua, when islanders and expats set up stalls piled high with tropical fruits, coconut-oil beauty products, shell jewellery, intricately woven straw hats and leis, floral crowns worn as headdresses. Up on stage, schoolchildren perform traditional dances "to preserve our culture", as the MC says. You can experience this in greater depth at folkloric shows known as "Island Nights", staged in hotels and dedicated venues, but the one I attend is unbearable. Even when sung in Cook Islands Maori, Una Paloma Blanca is a dreadful song.
If you want fine singing and flamboyant outfits, go to church. Attending the Sunday morning service at the whitewashed, tin-roofed Cook Islands Christian Church in Arorangi, I find the congregation are in fine voice and sporting Ascot-worthy hats. Visitors are most welcome at the 90-minute act of worship, with some parts in English and a projection screen translating the rest. While the psalms and hymns are familiar, the exotic flowers and terrific multi-part harmony singing add an unexpected richness.
Afterwards, a Lynda Snell-type extends an invitation to the Calvary Hall for refreshments. There is no hard sell, and the room is packed with families in their Sunday best interspersed with underdressed backpackers grabbing a free feast.
Outside the sun is shining on the mountains, birds are singing in the breadfruit trees, and the once-mighty of Arorangi are at peace in their well-kept graves. I may be 16, 000 kilometres from Blighty, yet here I am standing in good company with a glass of tropical squash and a plate of homemade ginger cake. Paradise has been found.
Air Rarotonga (airraro.com) flies from Rarotonga to Aitutaki. Note that the Cook Islands are on the other side of the International Date Line to New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Sydney every Saturday night, or via New Zealand daily. See airnewzealand.com.au.
When to go
May-September is high season, coinciding with the New Zealand winter, when the weather is dry with nights relatively cool. December to March is hot with tropical showers. August and September are good months for whalewatching, key cultural events are the Te Maeva Nui Festival (July 28- August 4) and Vaka Eiva canoe races (November 21-28).
Car hire costs about $44 a day through Polynesian Rental Cars (polynesianhire.co.ck). Scooters cost about $22 a day and drivers must first take a short practical test (also $22). You will also need a local driving licence ($18), available from the police station in Avarua. A bus journey costs $3.70.
Where to stay
On Rarotonga, the Crown Beach Resort & Spa (crownbeach.com) catches the sunset and has 36 villas and suites set in five acres of gardens with a pool, from $502 a night. On Aitutaki, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (aitutakilagoonresort.com) is a 36-room, adults-only sanctuary set on a private island reached by a one-minute ferry ride. Go for the premium beachfront bungalows, from $558.
On Aitutaki, adults-only Tamanu Beach (tamanubeach.com) has 22 thatched bungalows set in neat gardens with two pools, from $372, including transfers.
Rates drop if you are prepared to stay a short walk from the beach. On the south-west coast of Rarotonga, Lagoon Breeze Villas (lagoonbreezevillas.com) has 18 self-catering units set in a family-friendly garden with a pool, playground, barbecue and laundry, from $232.
Rates are for travel in early December 2014 and include breakfast; minimum stays may apply.
Where to eat on Rarotonga
Tamarind House (tamarind.co.ck), a charming 1909 colonial mansion overlooking the beach, has a globally inspired menu - splash out on the seafood platter.
Waterline (waterline-restaurant.com) is an affable, British-owned wooden beach bar and restaurant with fresh fish and soulful live music some nights. In the centre of Avarua, Cafe Salsa (salsa.co.ck) is a friendly pit-stop with good salads.
Housed in a shipping container beside Avana Harbour, the Mooring Fish Cafe is a casual, lunch-only cafe serving robust fare such as wahoo steak on Turkish bread. Take your own alcohol. Punanga Nui market also has excellent street food.
What to do
On Rarotonga, a cross-island walk with Pa (pastreks.com) costs $65, including transfers and a snack. Ask your hotel for information on sports events and church services, or call into the tourist office in Avarua.
On Aitutaki, a lagoon cruise with Teking (tekinglagooncruises.com) costs $111, including transfers, lunch, snorkelling equipment "and sarcasm".
Black pearls are cultivated on Manihiki atoll. Bergman & Sons (bergmanandsons.com) is a reputable retailer in Avarua, or you can buy them at Punanga Nui market - ask for a certificate of authenticity. Brightly patterned tivaevae, quilted bedcovers, are worth seeking out (see tivaevaecollectables.com). Buy ukuleles from the Prison Craft Shop, near the Crown Beach Resort, from $139. Shops generally close at 4pm and on Sundays.
The Telegraph, London